Building mental resilience with Olympian Clara Hughes

Jul 20, 2021 | RBC Wealth Management


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Hughes says she walked away from a race realizing she hadn't fulfilled her job as an athlete and Olympian and vowed to use her platform to highlight mental health and the struggles.

You can become one of Canada's most decorated Olympians and the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics and smile and be known for that smile, that moment, those wins. You can do all those beautiful, memorable things for your country and for yourself and still loathe the weight of those medals and the things that make you good at being everything to everyone because you're human.

Clara Hughes knows this because she still feels it–25 years on. She remembers how it felt to be a virtual unknown in the equally unknown (at the time) sport of individual road cycling for Team Canada in the 1996 Summer Games. She remembers how it feels to win the country's first and last medal in those games. An instant national treasure.

“I would be on city streets across Canada and people would walk up to me and say, ‘Clara, is that you? I recognized your smile,’” says Hughes during the event Building Mental Resilience and Caring for Your Well Being, hosted by RBC PH&N Investment Counsel. The people who'd stop her on the street would share their Olympic moments, those unforgettable memories of watching Hughes standing on the podium looking at the Canadian flag and they'd tell her how proud of her they were.

“I would smile at them and then I would go home and I would be alone with those medals... I would look at those two beautiful, heavy Olympic bronze medals, those things that I thought were going to transform and fix me and rescue me and make me something inside, and I loathed them,” says Hughes. “I loathed them as much as I loathed myself.”

Hughes went from the top of the Olympic world to the lowest of lows. “I spiralled back into depression, back into addiction with drugs and alcohol,” she says. “I even left sport because I thought it was sport doing this to me... I thought if I removed myself from the stress and the pressure I'd be okay.”

She says she was blaming everything outside herself. “I would come back to the one common denominator that was always there and it was me.”

Talking about mental health and wellbeing was still taboo. There was a stigma and as Hughes was told early in her training “feeling was for losers.” But she felt a lot. She carried a lot. And that has a habit of breaking the levies.

How an Olympic dream was ignited

Raised in Winnipeg, Hughes' father had struggled with alcoholism. “There was a lot of abuse in our household and when my mom and dad split up—I was nine and my big sister Dodie was 11—we both hit the streets in Winnipeg.” They were looking for community and found it in a dangerous place, says Hughes. By 13-years-old, the future Olympian was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and getting drunk regularly. Drugs soon followed. “It was my way of surviving [and] numbing this incredible pain, this trauma, this early childhood trauma and the experience of that trauma at a time when nobody was talking about trauma, nobody was talking about mental health or addiction,” she says. “No one was talking about how those two are always, always connected... we all just went about it in our way, in silence.”

One afternoon while contemplating the next party, a 17-year-old Hughes saw Gaétan Boucher skate in the 1988 Olympics and knew she wanted that. She joined a skate club. Cycling came next. Eight years later she'd cycle to that infamous 1996 pair of bronze medals at the Summer Olympics.

After the win, at her lowest, the National Cycling Team told her they were worried about her. The team doctor sat her down and they spoke about mood disorders and depression and what it meant clinically. “She told me clearly I was not alone, that so many athletes struggled with things that I was struggling with… that everybody's struggle and experience was unique.”

Hughes listened, she internalized it, but still, she pressed on. “I'd like to say that I didn't keep running into that same brick wall, but honestly I kept going headfirst into it because I still believed I was bigger, better and stronger than something like depression,” she says. “I didn't think I was going to be like my sister or my dad or my mom or anybody I saw that seemed so vulnerable and helpless... I still believed I had to be the strong one.”

In 2002, she'd claim another bronze. This time for speed skating in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Then a gold and silver medal for speed skating in the 2006 Turin Winter Games and a bronze for speed skating in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

That wall Hughes speaks of showed up again and again but something changed. She began working with Eric Van Den Eynde, a coach out of Quebec—a trained auto mechanic who had watched his own brother struggle with some of the things Hughes was facing. Van Den Eynde liked to compare his athletes to cars—the body was the mechanics and the mind was the driver. “Eric would say, Clara, sometimes the driver, she's not so good, let's work on the driver,” she says. “He brought me back to life by teaching me what limitations were, the value of saying 'that's enough for today.'”

Hughes says she learned to take rest days. She learned the value of acknowledging vulnerabilities and found the healthcare support she needed to heal. She found her pathway to resilience.

An important lesson brings Olympic victory

A week before the opening ceremony for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Hughes found out she would be the flag bearer for Canada. A few days before that ceremony, she was invited to a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation ceremony called “The Brushing Off.” “The Brushing Off allows you to clear your spirit and open your heart and open your mind to the beautiful present moment, to the people around you, to the opportunity that's right there,” explains Hughes. Amidst the backdrop of the ceremony, Hughes learned what she considers her most important lesson: “Nothing is done alone—the best things are done together.”

A few days later, she watched as one by one her teammates won medal after medal for Canada. She watched their success and all the support that went into it—a network that stretched across the country, the world, even. Then it was her turn. “I went to the rink and skated the most beautiful 5,000 meters of my life,” she says. “I was the defending Olympic champion who won a bronze medal, but it was as good as gold that day because it was excellence... it was what I dreamed of, this connected performance, the healing path that I had walked to get to that point of not being in desperation.”

But most of all, Hughes says she walked away from that race realizing she hadn't fulfilled her job as an athlete and Olympian and vowed to use her platform to highlight mental health and the struggles.

Starting the conversation around mental health

Hughes became the founding spokesperson of the Bell Let's Talk movement, helping to create an open discussion surrounding mental health.

Hughes has since travelled the world elevating voices and helping to highlight the path to mental resilience. “We all have this potential inside of us,” says Hughes. But there's work to be done. Being mentally resilient means asking tough questions of yourself, says Hughes. “What are you silencing? What's your truth, perhaps? What's your trauma? How can you support digging down, peeling back layers, connecting with your beautiful self, finding your own voice, knowing your own story?”

It's also about having empathy for others and understanding that being human often means carrying our traumas. We're unique but also unique together. “I encourage everyone to go on that journey of gaining empathy and compassion,” she says. “And then look at your place in your world and through the power you may have, and (say) how can I contribute to making a difference for the people I see struggling?”

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